Obama’s Biggest Mistake Isn’t Libya. It’s Syria.

The president regrets not having a better plan for after invading Libya. He is not copping to the larger fiasco.

It didn't have to be like this.

Photographer: LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images

President Barack Obama said Sunday that his biggest mistake as president was failing to plan for the day after the fall of the Qaddafi regime in Libya. But as bad as Libya looks today, Syria is faring far worse, in part because of the Obama administration’s failings -- which the president has not yet acknowledged.

On Libya, Obama regrets not staying engaged “after what I think was the right thing to do in intervening,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.” It’s worth noting that at the time, the White House was proud of the approach it took during the 2011 Libya intervention, which centered around sharing the burden with European allies, avoiding the deployment of U.S. ground troops, and leaving the toppling of Qaddafi as well as the political and physical reconstruction to Libyans.

“While there will be huge challenges ahead, one of the positive aspects here is that the Libyans are the ones who are undertaking the regime change and the ones leading the transition,” Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told me in 2011.

Rhodes explained that the principles of burden sharing and letting indigenous forces take the lead were “characteristics of how the president approaches foreign policy and military intervention.” A White House staffer later called that approach “leading from behind.”

The Libya intervention, which was heavily supported by Hillary Clinton when she was secretary of state, is now derided because five years on, Libya is still struggling to establish stability and democracy. Militias have failed to yield power, a shaky unity government has yet to gain widespread legitimacy, and the Islamic State is expanding on the ground.

But Libya is faring better than Syria, which is also five years into its Arab Spring revolution, only without a U.S. or NATO-led military intervention. Whereas Libya may have as many as 6,000 Islamic State soldiers, in Syria there are 20,000 to 30,000 Islamic State fighters, according to the CIA. Human rights groups on the ground estimate as many as 50,000.

More important, Syria and Iraq represent the Islamic State’s core, where they control major cities and from where they export their ideology and fighters to places like Libya. Syria is also where terror operations in Europe are prepared; the attackers in Paris and Brussels were trained in Syria, not Libya.

Politically, Libya is faring much better than Syria. After a long negotiation led by the U.N., a Government of National Accord is working to consolidate power. Success is not assured, but there is a clear path forward, a growing consensus around that path, and a reasonable chance of real political reconciliation.

In Syria, the ongoing Geneva talks show few signs of solving the crisis. Under the best scenario, President Bashar al-Assad would stay in power for as long as 18 more months until elections can be held, and he might stand in those elections. A more realistic assessment is that the Assad regime will not concede any power and will continue attacks on civilians for years.

When he decided to attack the Qaddafi regime in 2011, the reason President Obama gave was that intervention was necessary to prevent Qaddafi from perpetrating genocide against the civilians in Benghazi.

“If we waited one more day, Benghazi, a city nearly the size of Charlotte, could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world,” Obama said after he decided to attack. “It was not in our national interest to let that happen. I refused to let that happen.”

Today, Libyan civilians are much better off than their Syrian counterparts. The Assad regime’s campaign of airstrikes and starvation sieges has decimated cities larger than Benghazi. At least 300,000 civilians have been killed. Over 10,000 were tortured while in the custody of the regime. Twelve million have been internally displaced. Four million have fled Syria, flowing into neighboring countries and Europe, spreading destabilization well beyond Syria’s borders. In Libya, about 1,500 people died as a result of the fighting last year.

In his recent interview with The Atlantic, President Obama boasted about his resolve in avoiding more American involvement in the Syrian crisis. He said that in Syria, he had resisted following the “playbook in Washington,” that comes out of “the foreign policy establishment.” He called that playbook a trap that leads to bad decisions.

At various times, Obama and his aides have given several other reasons why Libya was a good place to intervene but Syria was not. In Libya there was a United Nations and NATO agreement to attack. Libya was a more manageable mission. Qaddafi didn’t have strong backers in Russia and Iran.

All these facts miss a larger point. Syria is more important strategically and symbolically.  Syria’s failure more directly impacts American national security interests and those of our allies, especially Turkey and Israel. And rebuilding Syria someday will cost the international community hundreds of billions of dollars.

Another difference between Libya and Syria for future U.S. presidents will be America’s influence there. Whatever happens in Libya, there will be some residual goodwill toward the U.S. and a recognition that when civilians were in danger of being slaughtered, America chose to not to look the other way. Not so in Syria, where an entire generation of young people are growing up in a war zone, feeling abandoned by the leading nations of the world.

In terms of what’s good for the U.S. national interest, the region, and the world, President Obama’s Libya policy, while imperfect, was hugely more successful than his Syria policy. Even leading from behind to solve a problem is better than leading a policy that allows the problem to spiral dangerously out of control.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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